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Duluth teachers, school district agree on contracts through 2017

The Duluth Federation of Teachers plans to vote on the contracts the week of April 14 after it meets with members, and the School Board is set to vote April 22. It will review the terms in closed session April 14.

The district released the tentative terms of the two contracts following a public records request from the News Tribune.

The tentative labor deals are for 2013-15 and 2015-17. The last contract expired June 30, and the agreements ended a year of talks that both sides have said were cordial.

“It was done with as little of an adversarial relationship as possible,” Frank Wanner, president of the teachers union, said Wednesday. “We really did negotiate this with the community and students in mind.”

Highlights of the 2013-15 proposed contract include:

  •  No salary increase this year, except for those earning increases for advanced education and years of service.
  •  A 2 percent increase the second year, which is next year, plus 1 percent for three instructional days added to the calendar year. For next year, that means students would be starting school the day after Labor Day: a departure from the usual Thursday start.
  •  Health insurance eligibility would be increased next year, from those who work half-time to those who work a minimum of 24 hours a week.
  •  Maintenance of the amount the district pays into health reimbursement accounts, which is $1,900. The potential existed for the district to pay more next year because of changes within the district’s insurance plan. The issue would be revisited each year.
  •  Beginning next year at Denfeld and East high schools, nine minutes would be added to each day.
  •  Elementary teachers instructing more than one grade in a class would get $500 more per year beginning next year.
  •  The second contract keeps the terms of the first, with the exception of teachers earning 2 percent salary increases both years, along with increases for experience and education or training. After 15 years, teachers start earning extra money for experience. Teachers with 25 years of service or more earned an extra $2,600 last year, for example. Teachers also earn annual increases during their first few years.    

Superintendent Bill Gronseth said compromises were made on both sides during the long process.

“I’m really happy we are adding instructional time for all of our students,” he said, noting that was one of his goals.

Another goal, he said, was stabilizing the district’s finances. He believes settling four years-worth of contract language will do that, he said.

“It’s helpful for planning for the future; we know what our expenses are going to be pretty far out,” he said.

Board member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp —who was appointed to sit in on negotiation sessions when she took office in January — said she’s pleased with the addition of time in the high schools and days in all of the schools, along with the plan to settle two contracts.

Board member Harry Welty said he is worried about the district’s long-term financial picture.

“My great fear is that we are going to end up having a far bigger deficit with this contract settlement than we have extra levy money set aside for teachers, and we will soon be in the role of cutting teachers and increasing class sizes,” he said. “I can’t in good conscience vote for that.”

Duluth teachers will earn on average $56,880 this year, according to statistics kept by the Minnesota Department of Education. That includes money earned for education and experience, but doesn’t include benefits. Teachers in Duluth with a bachelor’s degree start out at roughly $34,000 and top out around $68,000 with a doctoral degree, but very few reach that level. Of the nearly 500 teachers employed by the district this year more than 80 percent have a master’s degree. Almost 70 percent of the teachers have worked in the district for 16 years or more, and the average age of a teacher is 49, according to the education department.

On the higher end for the area, the average teacher salary for the Cloquet school district is $57,969. On the lower end, it’s $48,694 in Proctor. Both districts are much smaller than Duluth. The average teacher’s salary for similarly-sized Mankato, Minn., is $51,384.

Wanner said the union would have liked to see the seven-period day reinstated at both the middle and high schools, and more money for professional development for teachers. But he’s happy with the salary increases.

“We agreed to take zero the first year because we are so far into the school year and wanted to make money available to the school district … to reduce class size and do other things to improve education,” Wanner said.

He pointed to the recent tentative settlements of the Minneapolis and Anoka-Hennepin school districts, and said they were similar in nature related to increases. Each of those, however, are for two years.

 Wanner said it was important to the district to add time to the high school day to reach the state’s recommended number of hours in a year, which is 1,020. In doing so, days were also added to elementary and middle schools, he said, “Which provided additional opportunities for student achievement.”

Nineteen percent of the 331 school districts tracked by Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, had unsettled contracts as of April 1. The average salary increase was 1.7 percent in the first year and 2 percent in the second year, including increases for seniority and education.

The 2013-15 contract was settled much later than the last; which was agreed on about a year before the expiration of the one it was replacing. Increases for that contract were 1 percent the first year and 1.5 percent the second.